Wednesday, February 7, 2024

The Centenary of 'The Counterplot' by Hope Mirrlees

Hope Mirrlees is most known for her third novel, the fantasy Lud-in-the-Mist (1926), which has its keen enthusiasts, and more recently she has been rediscovered as an early Modernist poet with her long poem Paris (1920). But her two earlier novels have not so far attracted the same attention.

These are Madeleine, One of Love’s Jansenists (1919) and The Counterplot, which was published one hundred years ago in February 1924. The latter is not in the least like Lud-in-the-Mist in setting or style and any enthusiasts of that coming to it with similar expectations might be somewhat baffled.

The author was 36 years old at the publication of the book, and she dedicated it to her tutor and companion, the much older Jane Harrison, the Cambridge classicist noted for her Prolegomena to the Study of Greek Religion (1903) and similar studies. There are allusions in the novel to the classical idea of contrasting Apollonian and Dionysian energies.

The dustwrapper to a June 1926 reprint I have says the book is ‘a study of the literary temperament. Teresa Lane, watching the slow movement of life manifesting itself in the changing inter-relations of her family, is teased by the complexity of the spectacle, and comes to realise that her mind will never know peace till, by transposing the problem into art, she has reduced it to its permanent essential factors.'

The Counterplot is set in a country house in Eastern England. Teresa Lane is the daughter of an English stockbroker father and Spanish mother. She has aesthetical and intellectual interests. Through her eyes, Mirrlees describes evocatively the setting, the garden, and the décor of the house, particularly noticing the effects of light and shadow. Teresa sees the house as like a toy ark with wooden figures inside.

The household is introduced. She has an older brother and younger sister, and helps look after a niece and nephew, children of another, deceased sister. An Old Nurse is also part of the family, and there is also a working nursemaid and other servants (barely mentioned). They are joined by various guests, mostly friends of her brother. There are the habits of this time and class: the men dress for dinner, have port together afterwards, play billiards, and talk about sport and high finance, while the women are decorative, encourage the shyer men, and have slightly more cultured conversation.

Yet there are also hints of the mystical. Teresa thinks that in the house at certain moments ‘the present and the past have become one’. A guest, David Monroe, a young business associate of Teresa’s father, talks about the war: most veterans, he avers, had ‘some queer sort of experience.' Then he adds, obscurely: ‘One sees the star’. He has become a Roman Catholic, and later decides to become a priest. But even bluff, sporty cousin Rory has an uncanny side, talking to Teresa about what scared him as a child: the clock striking midnight, or staring at his reflection in a mirror.

I was reminded to some extent of David Lindsay’s Sphinx (1923), published just a few months earlier. There is a similar social circle, with its formalities and courtship complications, the decorous, ‘proper’ life of the well-off, contrasted with hints of the otherworldly glimpsed alongside this shallow show. But whereas in Lindsay’s novel there is a specific supernatural device involved, a dream machine, Mirrlees presents instead the brief fragmentary memories and impressions of her characters. For example, Teresa recalls a moment when she looked back at the furniture of her rooms in Chelsea and saw the old worn objects transformed into pure planes and shapes, like, she thinks, a glimpse of the Beatific Vision.

Another comparison of the book might be with the highly mannered prose fantasias of Sacheverell Sitwell, celebrations of art, architecture and connoisseurship. It is not that the structure or content are similar, but there are parallels in the patrician tone and fierce, rather frosty sophistication.

The question, as with Lindsay’s Sphinx, is whether the book’s brief mystical glimpses are sufficient for the enthusiast of fantastic literature, who may find the moneyed country house milieu rather tiresome. This is, in part, the dilemma of her protagonist, Teresa, too. She finds her family, and their guests, have irksome mannerisms and moods. The men, she thinks, have no real interior life. Certainly, they have mere fancy, of what she thinks of as the Alice in Wonderland or Rider Haggard type, but they do not know how to ‘make myth’. Mirrlees clearly sees an important distinction here, but this is somewhat under-explored.

The literary work Teresa devises to express her feelings about her family is a pastiche of 14th century Spanish religious pageants, set in Seville at the time of Pedro the Cruel. She uses it (says the dustwrapper) to ‘vent repressed irritation, to say things that she is too proud and civilised ever to have said in any other way.’ This play, ‘The Key’, becomes her main focus and in due course is given in its entirety, a bold move in a novel. 

Not all readers will share her heroine’s rather arcane interest in this era and its symbolism, and those not put off by the manners of the leisured class may now find another obstacle to sympathy. But what can certainly be said for The Counterplot is that it is highly original, a strange mix of the conventional and the baroque, and has numerous passages of descriptive finesse. 

(Mark Valentine)

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